They’re called SWAT matches. They’re played on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at Oakmont Country Club, best ball set-tos between foursomes, something to pass the time and stir the blood in the decade or so between hosting U.S. Opens.
The sultans of SWAT are the Oakmont members, people who like their golf as hard as the Pittsburgh steel that helped pay to build this place over a century ago.
One of them is a former LSU Tiger, longtime professional golfer Bob Friend.
Friend is the son of a pirate, sharing his name with his father Bob, a three-time All-Star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The elder friend is still pitching, at age 85, telling Sports Illustrated in a recent story about this year’s U.S. Open that’s he taken more hits playing at Oakmont than he did in pro baseball.
Oakmont is hard, with or without U.S. Open conditions and pressure. There’s a story — the kind of story you figure probably isn’t true but dearly hope it is — that a guest once played a round there, walked off the 18th green, went and sat in his car and cried.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” said Friend, 52, who played at LSU from 1982-86. “It isn’t for babies.”
Friend was a mere baby when he was allowed to become a member of the club, as an 8-year-old in 1972. These days Friend, who played on the PGA Tour and is now focused on playing on the Champions Tour. He’s also a member of Oakmont’s board of directors.
All Oakmont members consider themselves stewards of the course, he said, of an ideal set forth by the club founder and designer, William Fownes, who in 1903 set about to build the toughest golf course in the world.
By all accounts, he succeeded.
“It is,” the hardest, said Friend, who played in the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont. “I played in 150 PGA Tour events and four U.S. Opens. There’s no place to hide. There’s a premium on every shot. If you’re mentally lazy you’ll make a bogey, or worse. It’s a struggle from the moment the ball leaves your club face on No. 1 to the last putt on 18.”
Oakmont’s members have long upheld the unapologetic Fownes tradition, a line drawn in the sand of bunkers they used to tend with furrowed rakes just to make things even harder.
“I’ve never heard an Oakmont member complain about the course being too hard or too fast,” Friend said. “When the greens turn yellow we’re the happiest because that means they’re so hard you can’t find ball marks.”
Lee Trevino once said Oakmont was the only course in the country that could hold the U.S. Open at a moment’s notice. Friend said for the Open the USGA grew the rough — a little — but narrowed the fairways not one bit. The green speeds are roughly the same as for the members, about 13-14 on the Stimpmeter. That’s the trough-like device which was invented by a man named Edward Stimpson after he attended the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he watched the great Gene Sarazen putt right off one of the club’s green sheets of glass.
How fast is 13 on the Stimpmeter? Your driveway is probably about an 11.
“There’s no water or out of bounds,” Friend said. “It’s just damn tough. A great player can play TPC (Sawgrass) and shoot 76 and lose three or four balls. Here a great player will shoot 76 or 77 and finish with the same ball.”
Rain is expected at Oakmont on Wednesday through Friday morning. Friend said if it’s only a light rain, the winning U.S. Open score will still be 3 to 7 over par. If it rains a couple inches, it could be 1 or 2 under.
Friend will be rooting for the best scores from his fellow LSU golfers. Former teammate David Toms is in the field — he tied for fifth in 2007 at Oakmont — along with Smylie Kaufman and LSU sophomore-to-be Sam Burns.
Friend’s delight in the current state of LSU golf, coming off the program’s NCAA title in 2015. It’s on par with his pride in his legendary golf club.
“It’s always good to say you’re a Tiger,” Friend said. “But in the 30 years since I graduated from LSU, I’ve never been more proud. It’s nice having so many Tigers playing in this U.S. Open.”
Friend has just one wish, a familiar one, for football season, though.
“I hope Brandon Harris gets his stuff wired on tight,” he said.
Maybe breaking par at Oakmont would be an easier task.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.